JFK Library Opens Digital Collections

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy

To coin­cide with the 50th anniver­sary of the inau­gu­ra­tion of John F. Kennedy, the JFK Pres­i­den­tial Library today announced the open­ing of “the nation’s largest online dig­i­tized pres­i­den­tial archive.”

The details were pre­sent­ed in the Archivist’s Recep­tion Room in the Nation­al Archives build­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. by David S. Fer­riero, Archivist of the Unit­ed States (bio | blog), and Car­o­line Kennedy, Pres­i­dent of the John F. Kennedy Library Foun­da­tion. (The JFK Library is one of thir­teen pres­i­den­tial libraries admin­is­tered by NARA, the Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion.)

A lit­tle more than four years ago, on June 8, 2006, Sen­a­tor Edward M. Kennedy announced the dig­i­ti­za­tion project. Accord­ing to the press release:

At launch, the archive fea­tures approx­i­mate­ly 200,000 pages; 300 reels of audio tape, con­tain­ing more than 1,245 indi­vid­ual record­ings of tele­phone calls, speech­es and meet­ings; 300 muse­um arti­facts; 72 reels of film; and 1,500 pho­tos. The sheer vol­ume of dig­i­tized mate­ri­als is unprece­dent­ed for pres­i­den­tial libraries whose col­lec­tions were not born dig­i­tal­ly.”

Just as in any dig­i­ti­za­tion project, the ini­tial release includes only a frac­tion of what is in the library itself. As the press release notes, the JFK Library’s hold­ings:

cur­rent­ly include more than 8.4 mil­lion pages of the per­son­al, con­gres­sion­al and pres­i­den­tial papers of John Fitzger­ald Kennedy, and more than 40 mil­lion pages of over 300 oth­er indi­vid­u­als who were asso­ci­at­ed with the Kennedy Admin­is­tra­tion or mid-20th Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can his­to­ry. In addi­tion, the archives hold more than 400,000 still pho­tographs; 9,000 hours of audio record­ings; 7.5 mil­lion feet of motion pic­ture film; and 1,200 hours of video record­ings. Dig­i­ti­za­tion efforts are ongo­ing and addi­tion­al mate­r­i­al will con­tin­ue to be added to the archive as it is scanned and described.”

While many geneal­o­gists may jump to the con­clu­sion that their fam­i­ly is not in these records, so they do not mat­ter to them, I think the point is that this will be a pow­er­ful resource for schol­ars of all types, espe­cial­ly his­to­ri­ans and fam­i­ly his­to­ri­ans who seek to put the fam­i­lies they research into an his­tor­i­cal con­text. The suc­cess of this project will add to the even larg­er Google Books and Euro­peana projects, and serve as a guide and as per­sua­sion for many oth­er kinds of libraries, archives, and repos­i­to­ries to dig­i­tize their mate­ri­als.

The pop­u­lar media (and Ancestry.com and its com­peti­tors) imply that more genealog­i­cal records have been dig­i­tized than in fact have been. Nev­er­the­less, I say: The more dig­i­ti­za­tion, the bet­ter. The ben­e­fits of dig­i­ti­za­tion can be sum­ma­rized as fol­lows. Dig­i­ti­za­tion:

  1. Cre­ates a back­up copy of the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment.
  2. Allows archivists to lim­it han­dling of rare and frag­ile doc­u­ments, since a dig­i­tal copy can be made avail­able instead for most pur­pos­es.
  3. Makes mate­ri­als more wide­ly avail­able, with less con­cern for time and space, 24 hours a day, over the Inter­net.

To clar­i­fy the state of things with dig­i­tal genealog­i­cal records: Yes, many records have been dig­i­tized; no, the vast major­i­ty of records have not been dig­i­tized. So, I wel­come the launch of the JFK Library dig­i­tal archives, and of any dig­i­tized records, as anoth­er brick in an edi­fice that will nev­er be ful­ly con­struct­ed.